In September 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed new security legislation permitting Japan to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
This was a crucial step in Japan’s journey to becoming a ‘normal’ nation able to do more for its own security.
Why did Abe enact such a major change in policy? Accusations that nationalism or militarism have been key factors behind these changes overlook the contemporary dynamics at play.
A major factor behind Abe’s decision is Japan’s alliance with the United States. A less restrained security policy was intended to enable Japan to contribute more to this alliance and fend off accusations that it is not paying its fair share. It was also hoped that such a change would ensure that the United States remained engaged in the Asia Pacific.
It is also important not to discount the current dynamics of Asia in Abe’s calculations.
Establishing a greater level of deterrence against what Japan sees as the ‘China threat’ has become an important justification for freeing up its security policy and strengthening relationships around the region.
Japan also sees itself as playing an important role in protecting the ‘rules-based’ regional order. Abe views this order as being under threat due to assertive territorial claims and military expansion across the region in recent years.
This transition to a ‘normal’ country, it must be acknowledged, has not been without controversy. The new security legislation caused outrage in China, with Abe depicted as a militarist. South Korea also expressed its wariness. Inside Japan, domestic opposition parties and protest movements were vocal in their disapproval, asserting among other things that the legislation violated the pacifist Constitution.
Well aware of the potentially destabilising effects of the legislation, Abe has been keen to reassure the region about Japan’s shift in strategy. One of the Japanese government’s tactics has been to tie in these changes with its commitment to a rules-based regional order. When Abe promoted his Proactive Contribution to Peace policy at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2014, he strongly emphasised the importance of freedom, democracy and the rule of law in Japan’s global outlook.
But just as importantly, Japan has stepped up its efforts to deepen relations with countries around the region. This effort has been especially apparent in Japan’s work to develop strategic partnerships with a number of Southeast Asian nations. Japan has particularly sought to reinforce international norms on maritime security by supporting the development of regional coast guard capabilities. Japan’s work in building up the surveillance capacity of the Philippines has been a key example of this policy.
Beyond Southeast Asia, Abe has also sought to develop closer relations with countries like Australia. Indeed, Japan’s 2016 Defence of Japan White Paper describes the relationship with Australia as one of Japan’s most cooperative.
As a part of their strategic partnership affirmed in 2007 — updated to a ‘special’ strategic partnership in 2014 — Japan and Australia have signed a number of security agreements, regularly participated in joint exercises, and have built a steady record of cooperation in humanitarian operations. Most importantly — given Australia’s responsibility and reputation as a key US ally — the Japan–Australia strategic partnership also helps with the goal of keeping the United States engaged in the region.
This strategy of active engagement in Asia, together with the promotion of a normal Japan as a key part of a mutually beneficial rules-based regional order, has been broadly well received. Far from criticising Japan for its security reform agenda, leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia have all expressed outright support for Japan’s new policies. These are countries that have chosen to see Japan not through a lens of historical aggressor, but as a responsible international partner with the potential to contribute to a regional order into which they have all bought.
Without doubt, these responses to Japan’s new security agenda have also been driven by realpolitik calculations. Given the strategic uncertainties currently at play in Asia, many regional players have a strong preference for hedging policies. Yet these positive responses attest to the value of Japan’s record, dating back decades, of peaceful, proactive, and mutually beneficial engagement in the region, and reflect the post-war values that have become entrenched in Japanese society.
Author: Jason Buckley, ANU
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